PHILADELPHIA — Once upon a time, back in the late 1980s when you were much younger, thinner and had your whole future in front of you, the Montreal Expos had a base-stealing third/second baseman named Matt Stairs. He was a hockey player from St. John, New Brunswick who left high school for Canada’s National Baseball Institute in Vancouver, not exactly a hot bed for baseball talent, but it was a chance for Stairs to travel around the globe and play ball.
By 1988, Stairs was a member of the Canadian Olympic team and then signed as an undrafted free agent with the Expos. Twenty-three years later, in Washington, D.C., Stairs’ baseball life has seemingly come full circle. The Washington Nationals, the latest incarnation of the Montreal Expos, designated Stairs for assignment. At age 43 after playing for 13 different major league teams, Stairs could be at the end of his playing career.
That’s a big could, of course. This past April Stairs said he wants to keep on playing until the phone stops ringing and teams no longer call. After that, he wants to keep on coaching hockey in Bangor, Maine and maybe even coach or manage in the big leagues.
But that’s only if no team wants a power hitting lefty for the bench.
Certainly Stairs catching on with some team remains a possibility, but in the meantime there are a few things to think about when putting his career in perspective. For instance:
- What if Stairs would have come up in a proper position rather than as a second baseman?
Yeah, that's right… Stairs was a second baseman who swiped bases in the minor-league system for the Expos. In fact, during the 1991 season when he was playing for Double A Harrisburg, Stairs was the Eastern League MVP when he hit 30 doubles, 10 triples, 13 homers and 23 stolen bases.
Let that soak in a second—10 triples and 23 stolen bases.
Could you imagine Stairs as a second baseman during his playing career? How about when he was playing with the Phillies?
But what if he had been an outfielder from the jump? None other than Bill James, the godfather of statistical analysis, suggests that Stairs very well could be winding down a Hall of Fame career:
Look at it. Somebody decided he was a second baseman, he tears through the minor leagues, gets to Montreal, the Expos take one look at him and say, 'He's no second baseman, get real.' He bounces around, goes to Japan, doesn't really get to play until he's almost 30, then hits 38 homers, slips into a part-time role and hits 15-20 homers every year for 10 years in about 250 at-bats a season. … You put him in the right park, right position early in his career … he's going to hit a LOT of bombs.
Moreover, James also dug up this:
Stairs's career numbers are essentially the same as Reggie Jackson's (.262, .356, .490). All of his numbers trump those of Roger Maris. Other players with comparable numbers include Bobby Bonds, Frank Howard, Dwight Evans, Dale Murphy and Greg Luzinski. Nobody confuses those ballplayers with the ordinary.
It wasn’t until the last years of his minor league days that Stairs was moved off second base, largely because of his lack of fielding prowess. However, Stairs’ base-stealing ability also seemed to go away when he moved out of the infield. As a result, Stairs’ minor league stats make it look as if he underwent some sort of personality metamorphosis noting that he had 30 stolen bases in 19 big league seasons and 77 stolen bases in parts of eight minor league seasons. He also played just one major league game at second base, which came in the last inning of a blowout loss in Arizona when Stairs was playing for the Cubs.
Incidentally, Stairs played for the Cubs 10 years and 10 teams ago.
During his career Stairs has played for 13 different teams and bashed 265 career home runs. Of those, 21 were pinch homers, which is the most of all-time. His 100 career pinch hits are tied with Rusty Staub for 18th on the all-time list.
But Stairs was much more than a bat off the bench.
In 2008, Stairs passed another ex-Phillie, Todd Zeile, when he cracked homer No. 254 to give him the most homers amongst players who have played for 10-or-11 teams.
Now here's the interesting part…
When a guy has played for 13 teams in 19 seasons, it can be difficult for the fans in any of those cities to embrace him. But in Philadelphia, where the 5-foot-9 journeyman pinch hitter can become a folk hero in an instant and one of the family even quicker, Stairs just might forever be linked with the Phillies.
He played five years with the A’s and three with the Royals, but the season and a month he spent with the Phillies was where he became a legend.
Of course it took stints on 10 other teams before he got there.
Stairs joined the Phillies in a post-deadline trade with the Blue Jays for a player-to-be-named then went on to get one of the most memorable hits in franchise history.
Actually, it’s all of the home runs that are the biggest reason the sometimes tough Philly fans have identified Stairs as a favorite. However, those home runs aren’t the biggest reason why they like him so much. Firstly, there is that journeyman aspect to Stairs’ career. Of those 11 teams he’s played for since 1992, one team doesn’t exist anymore and in 2006 he played for three different teams after being traded once and waived another time.
Then there is that build. At 5-foot-9, the off-season high school hockey coach appears as if he could be playing beer league softball with Eagles fans. “Average Joe,” Stairs calls it.
“Let’s face it, I’m not 6-foot-2 and trim. I’m 5-foot-9 and 2-I-really-don’t-care – I still keep myself in good shape,” he said of his physique. “I don’t want to give the fans an excuse not to like me, but I guess when I hit a big home run they say, ‘Hey, that guy is just like us.’”
And oh yes, there are those big home runs. Since joining the Phillies in September of 2008, Stairs has had 34 regular-season at-bats, 11 hits and four homers. His slugging percentage was a gaudy .735.
That will get the fans excited right there.
But he kept them excited in 2009 even though he went hitless for two months. Manager Charlie Manuel isn’t known for using his bench that much and that oh-fer-two-months consumed 30 at-bats, however, Stairs still smashed five pinch home runs in 2009 and had another pretty huge plate appearance in Game 5 of the NLCS.
“I haven’t really haven’t had too many at-bats. But I had two pinch-hit home runs last year and two pinch hit home runs this year, and one in the playoffs,” Stairs said. “So for five out of 30-something at-bats I’ve had pinch-hit home runs.”
Oh yes, that one in the playoffs. It’s quite reasonable to say that Stairs’ hit the biggest home run in the history of the franchise. Can anyone think of a bigger one? Sure, there was Mike Schmidt’s homer to beat the Expos and clinch the NL East in 1980 as well as his blast in Game 5 of the 1980 World Series to help the Phillies take a 3-2 lead in the series, but Stairs’ pinch homer in the eighth inning of Game 4 of last October’s NLCS at Dodger Stadium rescued the Phillies in that game and helped carry them to the World Series.
Just like that, instant folk hero.
“I’ve had some memorable home runs. I had a 10th inning home run on Mickey Mantle Day and a pinch-hit home run in San Francisco in the Bay Bridge Series,” said Stairs, noting that he didn’t remember running the bases after that bomb off Jonathon Broxton in Game 4. “This one came in a better time in a great city.”
But don’t think for a minute that Stairs is immune to the excitement he generates. He hears you out there. Oh sure, he was a popular player in Oakland where he belted 122 homers in five seasons, including 38 in 1999. But it’s safe to say that Stairs loves the Philly fans back.
“On deck I have nothing on my mind, but I do hear the fans now and it fires you up,” he said. “You walk out of the dugout and all of sudden you hear the crowd yelling and you get those chills… put it this way, I take one practice swing when I’m on deck because the adrenaline going from the fans goes right into me and I have to get into the box and say, ‘OK, calm down.’
“I always say I take one swing for the fans and the rest for my teammates.”
The biggest home run in Phillies history? Yep, Stairs has it. And if he’s finished as a player, his short time in Philadelphia will be his most memorable.